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Preview: Rights Readers

Rights Readers

Human rights-themed book discussion

Updated: 2018-03-06T10:36:08.399-08:00


Our September Author: Elizabeth Pisani


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(image) This month our discussion takes us to Southeast Asia courtesy of author Elizabeth Pisani's Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation. The book is much more than a travel diary of her journey around the archipelago, filled as it is with insights from her years as a reporter and public health worker. Nevertheless, you will inevitably want to see and hear some the sights and sounds described in the book and conveniently enough she has video and slides on her website, Indonesia Etc, that you won't want to miss.  If you haven't read the book and want a taste of the issues the book covers, this Radio New Zealand interview is a good place to start. In addition to the TED talk on the complexities of corruption above, you can check out her TED talk on AIDS prevention here. As follow up to the book, you might want to read her recent articles in The New Yorker, on the dangers of political dynasties and the death penalty in Indonesia. Or check out this Huffpost article with policy recommendations for the new Indonesian president.

Now that I've taken this informative journey with the author, I'm looking back with new insight at some of Amnesty International's human rights concerns for the island nation. Be sure to browse AIUSA's press releases and blog entries on Indonesia and last but not least, learn about prisoner of conscience Filep Karma, a case many of our Loyal Readers have taken action on before, for renewed insight into his plight.(image)

Our August Author: Henning Mankell


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(image) In August we generally relax a little an read detective fiction, but although our selection this month, A Treacherous Paradise comes to us from the author of the Wallander mystery series, Henning Mankell, it isn't a traditional who-done-it. In this Guardian profile, Mankell explains the origin of the book:
“Normally it is very difficult to say exactly when a novel starts,” he says, “but in this case I can say exactly what happened. It was an early morning some 10 years ago in Maputo. I was in the theatre and a friend of mine — a Swedish scientist who was working in the Portuguese colonial archives — came to me and said: ‘Hey, Henning, I have found something very strange.’ Then he told me that in the tax archives at the beginning of the 20th century, there had been a Swedish woman who had been one of the biggest taxpayers, and she was the owner of the largest brothel in the town. She came from nowhere, owned the brothel for three years, then disappeared. I found this story enormously intriguing and tried to find out more about her, but it was impossible, so in the end it became a story about the little we know and a lot we don’t know.”
Read the full article for more insights or explore his personal website for about this author's diverse interests and talents. If you'd like some interesting visuals to help transport you back to colonial Mozambique while you read the book, check out this site for some old photographs of Maputo.

For a rundown on contemporary human rights concerns in Mozambique see this page from Amnesty International and while you are there take action on behalf of two Mozambicans who face charges for free expression of their political beliefs on Facebook.


Our July Author: Louisa Lim


allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="315" src="" width="560">This month we are reading The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited by NPR China correspondent Louisa Lim. This look back at the events of 1989 and their resonance 25 years later, is my favorite of our selections so far this year. As usual, we have a few supplemental links to help expand our understanding of the book.Lim has a website for the book which offers up many links to her media promotion for the book and further commentaries on topics such as Hong Kong's recent "Umbrella" democracy protests. Her public Facebook page also provides some good links.For anyone looking for a shortcut into the discussion, both the Milken Institute and the Library of Congress have good videos of Lim presentations. For a more free-flowing conversation, try the Council on Foreign Relations panel discussion, moderated by Orville Schell, author of the previous book we read about Tiananmen, Mandate Of Heaven.In a National Geographic interview, Lim details how two of the subjects profiled in the book, artist Chen Guang and Tiananmen mother Zhang Xianling came to be detained at the time of the book's publication in June of 2014.Additonal interviews to check out:The DiplomatThe 1989 protest movement remains so potent because many of its demands – for greater political participation, for action against corruption, nepotism and official profiteering – are not just unresolved, but more pressing than ever. In addition to those demands, a constellation of new concerns has emerged including anger over land seizures by local governments, the widening wealth chasm and China’s environmental problems...The ShanghaistI was surprised to find that my own book was classified in the Library of Congress cataloguing system under “Tiananmen Square Incident, 1989”, which is the bland nomenclature favoured by the Chinese government itself. To me, calling the murderous suppression of protests an “incident” is not just an act of omission. It’s an act of mendacity.Voices from Tiananmen, a multimedia presentation on Tiananmen from the South China Morning Post, is a great way to learn about or review the events of spring 1989.  Human Rights in China's June Fourth Overview has comprehensive links including lists of victims, prisoners, oral histories, essays, poetry as well as HRIC's ongoing concerns surrounding accountability for the event and it's commemoration.  The website for the film Tiananmen: The Gate of Heavenly Peace, which is mentioned in the book, also contains some good resources including an old-fashioned print bibliography. It's a great film if you get a chance to see it.Luckily, PBS Frontline's film, The Tank Man, is available to view online and the associated website has additional resources. The side by side comparisons of web searches in and outside of China are especially interesting.  The New York Times Lens blog has a nice feature about the famous photograph(s) with commentary from the photographers.  For fun checkout Mashable's round-up of Tank Man memes. And PRI catches a few more, including the Angry Bird and Simpson's versions.  Then finish up by comparing the icon to Ferguson Missouri's 'tank man' and Hong Kong's 'umbrella man'. (Bonus: watch Lim try to explain Hong Kong's protest movement to Stephen Colbert.)Finally, even if Chen Guang's art cannot be shown in China, you can still appreciate it on this blog. You can also sign the Tiananmen Mothers petition and learn more about Amnesty International's human rights concerns in China here.  [...]

Our June Author: Andre Brink


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(image) This month we are reading Philida, a novel by the late South African writer, André Brink.

The story is set in 1832, a year before slavery is abolished in South Africa, and the titular character was inspired by an actual slave woman related to Brink's family. The historical skeleton came to Brink via the Solms Delta Museum van de Caab which unfortunately doesn't have much of a web presence. The Stellenbosh Village Museum's website, (a village that also appears in the book) is a little more extensive and offers this tour through various historical eras:

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I also found South African History Online a useful site to orient myself to historical events mentioned in the book such as Galant and the 1825 slave uprising.

In brief interviews for The Guardian and NPR, Brink talks about writing from the point of view of a black woman and the historical basis for the novel.  In addition I found this interview from The Biblio File (also available via iTunes) useful for learning more about the author as it mostly concerns his memoir, A Fork in the Road.

Philida has been made into a musical! Brink's wife has posted photos of the production on her blog.

Finally, check out Amnesty International's human rights concerns in present day South Africa here.(image)

Our May Author: Emily Parker


allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="315" src="" width="420">This month we are reading Emily Parker's Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices from the Internet Underground, a look at the role of internet activism in China, Cuba and Russia. Parker has a personal website with biographical information and links to articles she has written, all worth a look. She would be fit right in at a Rights Readers discussion based on the Wall Street Journal profiles she has written of such luminaries as Marjane Satrapi, Mario Vargas Llhosa, Alaa Al Aswany, Junot Diaz, Muhammad Yunus, Ha Jin, Salmon Rushdie and Haruki Murakami, all of whom we have read. Of course reading a book like this gets you to wondering about the role of technology in other countries and I've personally bookmarked her articles for The New Yorker on Vietnam and Hong Kong for follow-up.For a TED-like summary of the contents of the book, I recommend this video from Personal Democracy Forum. If you've read the book already, I recommend Parker's conversation with Ann Marie Slaughter above or this offering from the National Endowment for Democracy, both of which feature well-informed interlocutors and great audience questions.Interviews are available at The Rumpus and The Diplomat.  I especially enjoyed Guernica's exchange between Parker and novelist Yiyun Li. You'll want to move her novel onto your "to-read" pile. The Los Angeles Review of Books assigned a different reviewer to each of the sections of her book which provides great insights into the strengths and weaknesses of her arguments.Finally, be sure to check out Amnesty International's concerns regarding internet censorship and take action on behalf of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi. [...]

Our April Author: Patricio Pron


This month we are reading Argentinian novelist Patricio Pron's My Fathers' Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain. Visit Pron's personal website,, to get acquainted with this young writer. Unfortunately, there is not a great deal of interview and discussion material available in English (though plenty in Spanish if you are so inclined), but here are a few items worth checking out:The book is based on Pron's father's experiences and his father has contributed reactions and annotations to his son's novel which can be found in English here.Hispanic New York has a lengthy interview on a variety of topics such as his first memorable read,I recall myself reading Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days on a very hot summer in the northwest of the country in 1981 or 1982 and thinking—maybe for the first time—that there was a world out there—I mean, out of the oppressive realities of the Argentine dictatorship that each one of us perceived in a different way— and that freedom and love and adventure were there. And I also recall myself thinking about writers as people living all these things—the freedom, the love, the adventure Verne had written about—and coming back to tell us about them, and thinking about how great their service was.Publisher's Weekly has a shorter interview with some useful insights into the construction of the novel and this response to a question about the novel's reception in ArgentinaIt’s been quite controversial because people didn’t expect a young writer, someone in my generation, to take part in discussing this history. The expectation is that the witnesses and protagonists will write about it, and I wanted to say that we who were children then, the unintended witnesses of the circumstances, also have things to say.This short piece, The present of the past of things, written for English PEN, explores themes similar to the novel- collective guilt, personal responsibility, national history and family stories. If you want to sample more, Paris Review (Ideas) and Guernica (Bees) both offer up Pron short stories. Or explore Madrid with Pron at Words Without Borders.Finally, check out Amnesty International's human rights concerns for Argentina here. [...]

For April: My Father's Ghost is Climbing in the Rain


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Join us this month as we read My Fathers' Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain by Patricio Pron, one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists:
(image) A young writer, living abroad, makes the journey home to South America to say good-bye to his dying father. In his parents’ house, he finds a cache of documents—articles, maps, photographs—and unwittingly begins to unearth his father’s obsession with the disappearance of a local man. Suddenly he comes face-to-face with the ghosts of Argentina’s dark political past and with the long-hidden memories of his family’s underground resistance against an oppressive military regime. As the fragments of the narrator’s investigation fall into place—revealing not only a part of his father’s life he had tried to forget but also the legacy of an entire generation—this audacious novel tells a completely original story of corruption and responsibility, history and remembrance.

Our March Author: Masha Gessen


allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="315" src="" width="420">This month we are reading Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot by Masha Gessen. You can get biographical details on the author of this book detailing the history and trials of the Russian art collective Pussy Riot via Wikipedia. This Guardian article, My life as an out gay person in Russia, is a bit dated now, but explains why she felt the need to leave Russia for her family's safety, and gives you a more intimate look at her personal history and motivations.In addition to the video above from the University of Chicago, I recommend Gessen's audio interview with Fresh Air. Or if you prefer print, Guernica goes deep with her on LGBT rights and the Russian protest movement in general: Gay Propaganda and Russia’s Shrinking Public Space. In more recent news, you might want to catch up with her views on the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov either on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show or in an opinion piece for the New York Times for the New York Times.Of course a book like this demands a video supplement just for Pussy Riot performances. Open Culture has conveniently assembled the band's more significant videos in one place. There are many post-prison interviews with Nadia and Maria available, but why not go with this one from Amnesty International United Kingdom. Then, if you are a House of Cards fan, you can relive their third season cameo appearance courtesy of Slate.  And not to be missed, there is their just-released Ferguson video I Can't Breathe.For a little more in depth analysis, I like this insight on the punk sensibilities of both Pussy Riot and the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei: allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="304" src="" width="540"> I also found this BBC audio program helpful in understanding why Pussy Riot targeted the Russian Orthodox Chruch: Putin, the Patriarch and Pussy Riot.Be sure to follow up your Pussy Riot explorations with a look at Amnesty International's human rights concerns in the Russian Federation including the murder of Boris Nemtsov, LGBT rights and take action for the free speech rights of other Russian activists. [...]

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer


allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="304" src="" width="540"> This month we are discussing Masha Gessen's book about the Russian art collective Pussy Riot, Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot.  If you want to join in the conversation this Sunday but didn't have time for the book or just want a visual supplement for your reading, you can stream the documentaryPussy Riot: A Punk Prayer on Amazon Instant video,On February 21, 2012, five young women entered the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. In neon-colored dresses, tights, and balaclavas, they performed a “punk prayer” beseeching the “Mother of God” to “get rid of Putin.” They were quickly shut down by security, and in the weeks and months that followed, three of the women were arrested and tried, and two were sentenced to a remote prison colony. But the incident captured international headlines, and footage of it went viral. People across the globe recognized not only a fierce act of political confrontation but also an inspired work of art that, in a time and place saturated with lies, found a new way to speak the truth. Masha Gessen’s riveting account tells how such a phenomenon came about. Drawing on her exclusive, extensive access to the members of Pussy Riot and their families and associates, she reconstructs the fascinating personal journeys that transformed a group of young women into artists with a shared vision, gave them the courage and imagination to express it unforgettably, and endowed them with the strength to endure the devastating loneliness and isolation that have been the price of their triumph. [...]

Our February Author: Alexander Maksik


allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="304" src="" width="540">This month we are reading Alexander Maksik's novel, A Marker to Measure Drift, the story of a young Liberian woman struggling to survive on a European island and to find a way forward from the trauma of war. Visit the author's website for a full listing of interviews and articles as well as a brief biography.In addition to the book trailer above, a longer video presentation and reading by Maksik is available from The American Library in Paris. Audio interviews are available from The Public and KCRW's Bookworm, where Michael Silverblatt tests out a provocative take on the end of the novel.A couple of print interviews worth exploring:GuernicaThe title—A Marker to Measure Drift—how does it relate to this decision that Jacqueline’s making, the decision to carry on? Alexander Maksik: The phrase comes from an essay I wrote years ago about sensualism, and from an image I kept returning to—trips to the beach with my parents when I was a kid. They had a little red Igloo Playmate cooler, where we would keep sandwiches. When I was out swimming, I would float with the current, and keep an eye on the cooler to measure how far I’d drifted. In the novel, Jacqueline is trying to find something like that—a solid point that she can use to evaluate the distance she has traveled, to measure how far she has drifted from a previous life.Harper's MagazineI don’t see Jacqueline as weak or desperate. She is strong and independent and determined to the point of making her life unnecessarily difficult. On the other hand, it is her determination, her pride and dignity, that allow her to survive. Of course, our Loyal Readers will be reminded of Helene Cooper's memoir, The House at Sugar Beach, when reading Marker, and it's no accident as Maksik acknowledges as part of his preparation for this novel. The interviewer at Epiphany detected another influence, J.M. Coetzee's Life and Times of Michael K. Maksik also credits as inspiration a film about the Liberian conflict by journalist Tim Hetherington that is unfortunately not easy to find. But as it happens, PBS Frontline has a new documentary out, Firestone and the Warlord, (available online and via iTunes) which I found quite resonant with the novel.Finally, check in here for Amnesty International's take on human rights in Liberia and here for an overview of refugee and migrant rights. [...]

Our January Author: CJ Chivers


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(image) This month we are reading New York Times reporter, C.J. Chivers' history of the AK-47, The Gun.  I highly recommend a visit to Mr. Chivers' website In addition to biographical info, the author blogs from his reporter's notebook covering such issues as the arms trade, the Ukraine and Syrian conflicts, and his recent reporting on chemical exposure of U.S. troops in the Iraq War. (For more on that see this NYT documentary.)

Good interviews providing an introduction to the book come from NPR's Fresh Air and the World Affairs Council. Also of interest is this interview with Chivers after he received the Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism for reporting from Syria. And for kicks here is on The Colbert Report also talking about Syria.

Supplement your reading of the book by learning more about Amnesty International's work on the arms trade here or visit Control Arms to learn more about the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty.

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Our December Author: Jenny Erpenbeck


allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="315" src="//" width="420">This month we are reading a short but rich novel, Visitation, by the German writer Jenny Erpenbeck. The video above attempts to visualize the impressionistic style of the novel in which ordinary domesticity is repeatedly swept away by historical events as the author chronicles the life of a vacation home.  (I'm a bit murky on the film's origins, but I love when novels inspire artistic responses.)As with many of the works in translation that we read, it's a bit difficult to find supplemental material in English. She has a new novel out in translation, The End of Days, so as she becomes better known we may be able to find additional resources.A couple of video interviews are available, one from Boston University with her translator Susan Bernofsky  Start around the 30 minute mark to hear her discuss how much historical research went into the work as well as some biographical details. In a panel discussion from the Center for Fiction she also gives a good overview of the relationship between the intimacy of the places we call home and the sweep of history.Here are some print interviews worth exploring to learn more: The Jenny Erpenbeck Interview | Quarterly ConversationMieke Chew: In a review of Visitation, Alfred Hickling said that your novel had attempted to compress the trauma of the 20th century into a single address. To start then, a big question: how has history affected your writing?  Jenny Erpenbeck: I think I always start with a very personal issue. Then, once I start to look at it closely, it becomes historical. Things become historical, just by looking at how they came about. It’s not that I start with the idea of telling a “historic” story. I think history infects the lives, the very private lives, of people, so you cannot remove something from history, even if you just want to tell a story. It gets in here and there. I think that this was what happened when I started to write Visitation. I started with my own story about the house, and then I saw that there were so many stories involved. Stories that occurred long before I came to the place that I write about. All of a sudden I was in the middle of the German history without having thought about it.Focus on Literature - Goethe-InstitutIf in the course of your life you’ve spent a lot of time in a place, in a street, in a city, at some point that tilts and time itself becomes something like home. At some instant it suddenly gains a great deal of weight and this weight then holds you fast to the place.Finally, this Paris Review essay, Homesick for Sadness, seems to throw light on the inspiration for this book as well as Erpenbeck's experience of the fall of the Berlin Wall. When my son and I are in the country in the summer, sometimes we roam around, crawling under fences that have been blown over and knocked full of holes to access vacant lots once used for company holidays. We open the doors of empty bungalows; they aren’t even locked. We gaze at the carefully folded wool blankets at the foot of the bunk beds, the curtains that were neatly drawn shut before some long-ago departure, and the Mitropa coffee cups that someone washed and put away in the kitchen cabinet twenty-five years ago. Without saying anything, he and I gaze at all these things that have been preserved unchanged, as if by a magic spell, ever since the last Socialist vacationers spent their holidays here—just before their companies were phased out at the beginning of the nineties, transforming an absence that was to last only two days into an absence forever. [...]

Our November Author: Kai Bird


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(image) This month we are reading Kai Bird's memoir, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978.  Bird's personal website will give you more info on his other books and articles. Be sure to check out the slideshow for photos relevant to Crossing.

The video clip above is from a C-Span discussion of the book. The full interview can be found here and provides a good overview of the book. This interview Los Angeles Public Library ALOUD presentation is also good.  Shorter interviews are available from NPRWNYC and
Open Source.

Learn more about Amnesty International's concerns in Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories here including the action on the Israel/Hamas ceasefire.(image)

Our September Author: Gilbert King


This month we journeyed back in time to read Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, the Pulitzer-winning book by Gilbert King detailing the case of four African-Americans falsely accused of rape in the early 1950's. I found the book to have tremendous relevance to our contemporary headlines regarding police abuse and prosecutorial misconduct. In addition to the engaging presence of future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the story has many compelling characters, so it's not surprising to learn that film rights have been sold and a screenplay is being written. Let the casting speculation begin!You can get to know Gilbert King via his personal website and Facebook page, where he regularly shares articles that reflect how the themes of the book still resonate today. For a short synopsis of the case, see this "Real History" segment.  For a longer introduction, the Miller Center has a good video and audio interview. If you like podcasts, The Drunken Odyssey also has an interview, My personal favorite though, and a good one if you've already read the book and aren't looking to recap the details, is this free-flowing conversation between King and novelist Maaza Mengiste (someone we will will surely read at some point) from New York University. It's just great to see two seemingly very different writers find so much in common.King's previous book looks like it would be of interest to our Loyal Readers as well. The Execution of Willie Francis: Race, Murder, and the Search for Justice in the American South details the botched electrocution of a seventeen-year-old Louisiana boy. In light of more recent botched executions, King wrote a compelling op-ed for the New York Times about the case. Noting that both Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas cited the Francis case in opinions regarding execution protocols, King wrote,And 60 years after two drunken executioners disregarded the tortured screams of a teenage boy named Willie Francis, the Supreme Court continues to do so.Sounds like Willie Francis is a must-read for all death penalty abolitionists.I'm sure our Pasadena Readers with loyalties to NASA will enjoy learning that King is involved in the writing of a forthcoming series called Unravelling the Cosmos involving what sounds like a lot of JPL-generated imagery. King also writes for the Smithsonian on a variety of topics. Here's a short article about astronomer Edwin Hubble.Finally, reading this book reminded me that Laurence Fishburne did a one-man show Thurgood, about Thurgood Marshall a few years back which was made into an HBO film. This book really whet my appetite for learning more about this important historical figure and the film sounds like a fun place to start to learn more. [...]

Grab a Hunk of Lightning: Dorothea Lange on PBS


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Save the date! PBS American Masters will premier Grab a Hunk of Lightning, a documentary about photographer Dorothea Lange on Friday August 29.  The film is directed and narrated by her granddaughter, an award-winning cinematographer.

Earlier this year, our Loyal Readers enjoyed reading Marissa Silver's Mary Coin, a novel inspired by Lange's famous "Migrant Mother" photo. This looks like a great opportunity to learn more about this great artist through an intimate take on her life and work.(image)

For September: Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King


allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="405" src="//" width="540">Next month please join us in reading Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America  The book was the winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. I am really looking forward to exploring the relevance of this historical incident in light of today's headlines regarding police brutality and race relations. In fact, if you are a fan of Slate's Political Gabfest, you know that Yale Law professor, James Forman recommended Devil in the Grove this week for that very reason! Start reading now and mark your calendar for our September 21st discussion!Arguably the most important American lawyer of the twentieth century, Thurgood Marshall was on the verge of bringing the landmark suit Brown v. Board of Education before the U.S. Supreme Court when he became embroiled in an explosive and deadly case that threatened to change the course of the civil rights movement and cost him his life. In 1949, Florida’s orange industry was booming, and citrus barons got rich on the backs of cheap Jim Crow labor. To maintain order and profits, they turned to Willis V. McCall, a violent sheriff who ruled Lake County with murderous resolve. When a white seventeen-year-old Groveland girl cried rape, McCall was fast on the trail of four young blacks who dared to envision a future for themselves beyond the citrus groves. By day’s end, the Ku Klux Klan had rolled into town, burning the homes of blacks to the ground and chasing hundreds into the swamps, hell-bent on lynching the young men who came to be known as “the Groveland Boys.” And so began the chain of events that would bring Thurgood Marshall, the man known as “Mr. Civil Rights,” into the deadly fray. Associates thought it was suicidal for him to wade into the “Florida Terror” at a time when he was irreplaceable to the burgeoning civil rights movement, but the lawyer would not shrink from the fight—not after the Klan had murdered one of Marshall’s NAACP associates involved with the case and Marshall had endured continual threats that he would be next. Drawing on a wealth of never-before-published material, including the FBI’s unredacted Groveland case files, as well as unprecedented access to the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund files, King shines new light on this remarkable civil rights crusader, setting his rich and driving narrative against the heroic backdrop of a case that U.S. Supreme Court justice Robert Jackson decried as “one of the best examples of one of the worst menaces to American justice.” [...]

Our August Author: Andrey Kurkov


allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="304" src="//" width="540"> This month we are having fun with Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov's book Death and the Penguin, a dark humorous novel set in post-Soviet Kiev.A couple of good places to get acquainted with Kurkov are this Guardian profile with intriguing details such as,It was Kurkov's hobby of collecting cactuses – "I had about 1,500 at the peak of it" – that led him to an interest in languages, starting with botanical Latin.Or this Australian Broadcasting Corporation interview which relates the plot of his children's book The Adventures of Baby Vacuum Cleaner Gosha, among other biographical insights. And while we are on focused on the quirky, Kurkov discusses penguins here.  Although this video interview from the Wilson Center is about a different book, it contains some good insights into his writing process.Bearing in mind that Death and the Penguin was published in 1996 so lacks some relevancy to more recent events in Ukraine, here are some links relating to the current situation:Kurkov's Facebook page is a great place to get his take on current events.  He also wrote an article for The Guardian in March: Why I stayed as the crisis in Ukraine flared,Another morning without war. It is horrifying to think that tomorrow or the day after we may not be able to say that.Also worth a look in this vein is this interview from Sampsonia Way. I know the endangered journalists in the novel brought to mind Anna Politkovskaya for me. Kurkov has had a taste of this himself,After Ukraine’s independence, I was openly followed for three months in 2001, after the murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze. I was followed by security officers who wanted to put psychological pressure on me because I was writing too much about the murder for the international press. I was also attacked by the government media syndicate.As it happens, Kurkov just published his journal of the recent protests, Ukraine Diaries last month, so if you are looking for some street level insight into what's going on, this would be a great follow-up.Ukraine Diaries is acclaimed writer Andrey Kurkov's first-hand account of the ongoing crisis in his country. From his flat in Kiev, just five hundred yards from Independence Square, Kurkov can smell the burning barricades and hear the sounds of grenades and gunshot. Kurkov's diaries begin on the first day of the pro-European protests in November, and describe the violent clashes in the Maidan, the impeachment of Yanukovcyh, Russia's annexation of Crimea and the separatist uprisings in the east of Ukraine. Going beyond the headlines, they give vivid insight into what it's like to live through - and try to make sense of - times of intense political unrest.   Finally, a bonus link: New Yorker photograpner David Monteleone's slideshow of Revolutionary Relics from the Ukrainian protests. [...]

More Transoceanic Zen


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Bottle from Kirsten Lepore on Vimeo.

While we are still enjoying the warm afterglow of our discussion of Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being, I thought I'd share the wonderful animated video above, about a transoceanic conversation with a very Zen ending!

(image) And on the subject of strange tales of lost and found objects and impossible journeys, I'd like to recommend Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author,Who Went in Search of Them by Donovan Hohn. It's a story that meanders along exploring children's books, toy factories, container ships and ocean science among other topics. I got bogged down occasionally in the author's personal story, but overall, I learned a lot and enjoyed the trip. (image)

Our May Author: Ruth Ozeki


allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="315" src="//" width="560">This month we are reading, Ruth Ozeki's multiple award-winning novel, A Tale for the Time Being. The book concerns a Japanese girl named Nao and a struggling North American novelist, Ruth, and the accidental connection that is made between the two by the teen's diary. The narrative spins out to explore themes such as suicide and bullying, the Fukushima tsunami, Alzheimer's and Zen practice, to name just a few. Most of all I liked the empathetic connection over space and time formed by Ruth's reading of Nao's journal and Ruth's desire to act on her concerns. It felt very much like what we try to experience with every book we read and discuss here at Rights Readers-- trying to establish greater empathy with distant cultures and better ground our activist impulses.To help you learn more about the author and the book, Ozeki has a great website to browse called Ozekiland. The video above from her publisher gives a concise summary of some of the sources and themes of this very layered narrative.Here's a good print interview to check out: The Shores of My Imagination: A Conversation with Ruth Ozeki » Public Libraries Online Sample:PL: As a reader you get so caught up in the Ruth version of the story and the fates of characters that might not exist. RO: And I was doing that on purpose. I was very much playing with what’s real and what’s not real. And how do we experience reality, how do we experience the gradations of what’s real and what’s not real? And also how do we experience uncertainty? Having planted the seed of uncertainty, it’s always going to be there vibrating in the background. And the book is about not knowing, too. Once again, I go back to the tsunami and the thousands of people who were washed out to sea. And we don’t know. There’s so much that we don’t know. I look at the Ruth section of the book as being my failed memoir. Because in reality I was thinking about writing a memoir, in fact I was working on a memoir—In a Granta Podcast, Ozeki talks about Tale and an essay she wrote for the publication about her grandfather and a mysterious photograph she has of him and about the ways she feels linked to him across time-- themes that are obviously similar to the novel. She also wrote a short piece for Shambala Sun, Nothing is Wasted, about her grandmother's death that is worth a look as well.The Missouri Review (for literary insight) and Oregon Public Radio (where she talks about caring for her aging mother and her Zen practice) podcasts are both worth a listen. Both interviews are also downloadable via iTunes.  On the Ozekiland blog, be sure to checkout the post On Zen Nuns & Novelists about Jakucho Setouchi, the inspiration for the character of Old Jiko. Here's a video of the activist nun talking about empowering the elderly and Japan Times reports on her anti-nuclear hunger strike.Finally, Nineteen Questions puts some interesting queries to the author and our resident language buffs will appreciate this one:With your bicultural background, please explain something in Japanese that is hard to translate into English.I think kotodama (literally word- spirit/ soul) is one of those beautiful concepts and ideas that we just don’t have a word for in English. It is a uniquely Japanese notion, and it is very beautiful. Anyone who loves language has a sense that there is a spirit in language. Words have a spirit in them, but we don[...]

Book Fans Put Their Spin on Ozeki Novel


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This month's novel, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, a book about the connection between a North American novelist and a Japanese teen, has sparked some creativity from it's many fans, such as the little animation above about the passage from the book describing the Pacific gyres. It's a great example of how this book makes globe-spanning concepts feel intimate.

In the video below you will find another gyre-like spin, a song inspired by the book, written and performed by a group of young British book enthusiasts. Fun!

Finally, to help you get a little more grounded, you might want to have Ruth Ozeki herself lead you in a Zen meditation.

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Our March Author: Marisa Silver


allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="304" src="//" width="540"> (image) (image) kMary Coin: A Novel (image)

Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits

Marisa Silver: Interviews
Marisa Silver


Our January Author: Vaddey Ratner


allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="315" src="//" width="560"> This month we are reading Vaddey Ratner's novel of hope and survival during the Cambodian genocide, In the Shadow of the Banyan. Visit Ratner's website to learn more about her, especially the media page, where you can listen to a short speech she gave to the United Nations Association and another she gave at the PEN/Faulkner award ceremony in which she articulates her commitment to human rights and free expression. Bonus points for her reference to Indonesian writer Pramoedya Anata Toer who we enjoyed reading some time ago! Ratner answers questions from a university class studying human rights in ▶this video, but unfortunately, the audio is poor quality. A few other interviews worth a look:NPR:Her voice breaking, she says she, like Raami, feels responsible for the death of her father at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. "So I wrote this book to make him live again, and to make him live forever."Publisher's Weekly explores her influences, Elie Wiesel's Night and Rights Readers favorite Michael Ondaatje,I felt a part of the spirit of those who died. I know some people see only death in that experience, but as a child I saw the desire to live. I wanted to capture that. Wiesel’s Night gave me a language for a story that lived in me that I hadn't yet learned to articulate.”Many interesting insights on the creative process from The Writer,To make it personal, to take it beyond the place I loved as a child and make it also a place my reader would love and care about, I needed to articulate it in the minutiae of a child’s daily connection to the place, a connection cultivated with little preconceived notion or judgment of the surroundings.To bring the human rights discussion around to present-day Cambodia, please visit Amnesty International's Cambodia page where you can learn more about the crackdown by security forces on protesters resulting in at least four deaths earlier this month. Witness has citizen video of this serious incident. Be on the lookout for actions to follow! [...]

Our December Author: Eyal Press


allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="315" src="//" width="560">This month we are reading Eyal Press' Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times, a great little book that is both inspiring and thought-provoking. Watch the video above for a brief taste of this author's insight into how everyday moral dilemmas converge with huge global concerns.  This book asks what kind of person breaks from the crow and to defy orders or become a whistleblower. This is sure to be a great discussion starter! For an overview of the book, you can check out the Talk of the Nation NPR interview that got me interested in this title, or this interview from Penn State.To learn more about the author, stop by his web page.  You can browse links to articles Press has written there, but here are a few that I thought extended the discussion from the book particularly well:From NYRB Whistleblower, Leaker, Traitor, Spy: How does Edward Snowden fit the whistleblower model? And similarly an NYT op-ed leading with the Bradley Manning case: Silencing the Whistle-Blowers.From Tom Dispatch Why No One Would Listen: Corporate Whistleblowers Get the Silent Treatment From Washington: Why do we ignore those who call out corporate malfeasance and bring the hammer down on national security whistleblowers?One of the cases recounted in the book involves a WWII era Swiss border guard, Paul Grüninger, who disobeyed orders allowing thousands of Jewish refugees to escape Nazi Germany. If your German is up to speed, a documentary about Grüninger is viewable here, but if not, you may be in luck, as a feature film version of this story, "Akte Grüninger" is set to debut next month. I have no idea whether it will make it to the U.S. market, but it looks promising and you can view the trailer - released just this week - below.Finally, I know I'm now curious about Eyal Press' previous book about the abortion debate, Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict that Divided America. If you are too, you can get a preview of the subject of that book from this NPR Fresh Air interview. allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="315" src="//" width="560"> [...]

Rights Reel: Young Lakota on Independent Lens


allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="315" src="//" width="420">I've just started reading Louise Erdrich's The Round House (a Cleveland Rights Readers selection). This fictional narrative draws on realities like those described in the Amnesty International report, Maze of Injustice, about sexual violence against indigenous women, and institutional barriers to redress. Now I'm really looking forward to another look at gender issues and Native Americans in the up-coming PBS Independent Lens presentation of Young Lakota, South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation is no stranger to strife and heartbreak, stark realities, and inspired idealism. In Young Lakota, we are brought directly into the emotional and often uncertain journey of Sunny Clifford, her twin sister Serena, and their politically ambitious friend Brandon Ferguson, who all share the desire to make a difference for themselves and their community. Their political awakening begins when Cecelia Fire Thunder — the first female president of the Oglala Lakota — defies a South Dakota law that makes abortion a crime, even in cases of rape or incest. Fire Thunder takes a stand by proposing a women's health clinic providing abortions on the reservation but open to all local women. While Serena is unwed and with a toddler, and Brandon is raising two little boys, Sunny is just back on the reservation after two years in college. All three find themselves immersed in this political battle as they struggle between opportunity and principle.The film comes from the team that made the excellent documentary, The Education of Shelby Knox.  Young Lakota premieres on November 25th.While I'm at it, another Frontline/Independent Lens offering on these themes is last spring's Kind Hearted Woman, the film follows Robin Charboneau, a 32-year-old divorced single mother and Oglala Sioux woman living on North Dakota’s Spirit Lake Reservation.Robin’s battles in tribal court with her ex-husband for custody of the children, even after he is convicted of abusive sexual contact with his daughter, illuminate how serious this problem is on the reservation. Her quest to heal her family, find a man worthy of her love, build a career, and fulfill her goal of returning to her reservation to help prevent the abuse of women and children, takes her on an intimate and inspiring journey full of heartbreak, discovery, and redemption.The film is available to watch online at the PBS site, or you can download the audio on iTunes (a good way to work through it's full five hours). Both films are great companions to Erdrich's award-winning novel. [...]

Read for Rights on International Children's Day


allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="304" src="//" width="540"> Need a break from the Gettysburg Address and JFK assassination anniversaries? How about a celebrating International Children's Day by learning about some great children's books?The panel discussion above is from last year's PEN World Voices Festival and takes its inspiration from Janusz Korczak, the Polish educator and orphanage director who chose to stay with his charges upon transfer to the Warsaw Ghetto and Treblinka, where he was killed. Author Patricia McCormick further explores the theme of genocide in her book Never Fall Down, along with the subject of the book, Cambodian genocide survivor, musician and activist Arn Chorn-Pond (also the subject of the film, The Flute Player). Debby Dahl Edwardson's novel, My Name Is Not Easy, was a National Book Award finalist and concerns the impact of boarding school on the language and culture of Inupiaq children  in the 1960s. Polish journalist Wojciech Jagielski, the author of a book (for adults) about child soldiers, The Night Wanderers: Uganda's Children and the Lord's Resistance Army, rounds out the panel.  I was inspired to read both McCormick and Edwardson's books after listening to this panel and recommend them for young readers interested in learning more about human rights through stories about their peers. Arn Chorn-Pond's story of survival and healing, in particular, is an inspiring one for people of all ages.To learn more about children's rights, please visit Amnesty International's FAQ on the Convention on the Rights of the Child and while you're at the site, take action on behalf of Syrian children. [...]